The 160 containers of drums will be shipped beginning next month, and there is much more cleanup work to be done.
By Joe Walker firstname.lastname@example.org
The huge pile of rusted drums, which marked the most obvious sign of contamination from Cold War work at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, was conspicuously absent from the northwestern fenced area of the plant Thursday afternoon. The messy mound had been 35 feet high and covered 24,000 square feet.
Using heavy equipment, workers scooped residue from the last of 85,000 crushed drums and set sights on shipping about 160 containers of the material by train to Envirocare, a hazardous waste disposal site in Utah, starting next month. All the material is expected to be gone from the plant by year's end to fulfill a promise by Carolyn Huntoon, assistant secretary of environmental management for the U.S. Department of Energy.
Drum mountain's removal drew sharp response from Sen. Mitch McConnell, who secured another $10 million this year for the project and obtained Huntoon's commitment.
"It's great news that the Department of Energy stuck to its commitment to eliminate drum mountain by the end of 2000," he said. "However, it begs the question: If there was a presidential election every year, would cleanup of the (plant) have been completed years ago?"
McConnell said he is "relieved that this part of the cleanup process is complete, and that drum mountain is no longer a threat to the people of Paducah."
Despite its girth, drum mountain represented only 10 percent of the 65,000 tons of scrap metal at the plant. The next steps are to remove the rest of the scrap — much of it adjacent to drum mountain — and look for what is beneath the vacant pile, which is a suspected source of groundwater contamination.
Gordon Dover, projects manager for DOE environmental contractor Bechtel Jacobs, said old records and some past workers say drums of waste are buried below drum mountain. There is hearsay that some of the drums contained ash contaminated with such highly radioactive elements as plutonium, he said, but that has not been verified.
"We've heard anecdotally that there's a mountain underneath drum mountain," said Don Seaborg, DOE site manager. "But we haven't seen anything obvious like that yet."
Dover said removal of the other 90 percent of the scrap probably will start next summer and the investigation of the drum mountain subsurface will start in 2002.
Drums were not the only things found in drum mountain. Workers discovered a fire hydrant, railroad ties, piping and much larger drums that were set aside for further investigation, he said.
Much of the remaining scrap is old equipment removed many years ago when the plant's huge uranium enrichment buildings were upgraded. Dover said the scrap also contains trailers and old buses used to transport workers.
The $7 million cleanup project was done by 40 employees of USEC Inc., which operates the plant, under contract with Bechtel Jacobs. Georgann Lookofsky, plant public affairs manager, said the removal involved a daily average of 25 USEC workers, including atomic workers' union employees and some managers, and took place without injuries.
In June, USEC got off to a rocky start when a drum baler shut down on the first day, forcing several serious delays that threatened completion of the work this year. USEC finally quit trying to use the baler and added an assembly line last month. As a result, the work was finished more than two weeks early.
"They obviously faced a number of issues, but they worked together," Lookofsky said. "They kept their focus on working safely and doing things right. We're really proud of that."
Seaborg said the work was during the hottest part of the summer and people had to wear uncomfortable protective clothing and equipment. He congratulated the contractors and workers for "many long and hard hours under very difficult conditions to get this important job done."
USEC, which has cut hundreds of workers in the past two years because of slumping business, will keep bidding for cleanup work, Lookofsky said, adding that the drum mountain project probably saved a few jobs.
"Should anybody else get laid off, we're hiring about 60-plus (union) workers, so they would not be on the street very long," Dover said.
Empty drums removed from drum mountain once contained mildly radioactive uranium tetrafluoride (UF4).